CPO Spotlight: Simon Smith

Simon Smith is Chief People Officer at Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings PLC.

For HR Heads‘ first CPO Spotlight, he spoke with Jen Gaster about Aston Martin and the early influences that shaped his career.

What are the leadership muscles that you built during the pandemic that you are looking to carry forward in your role at Aston Martin?

Two things, one is making sure you look after yourself, and I certainly remember that period of lockdown as probably the most intense working period as many of us ever had in our careers and making sure you took that time to get some fresh air, get some exercise and looking after yourself is so important. 

Secondly, checking in on the team and making a real conscious effort, particularly with people who are working remotely, you know people have other things going on and checking in not only on your own team but people around your teams as well making sure everybody is ok and can do their job to the best of their ability.  

My reflection is that we were about 90% effective during Covid, with Zoom and Teams, but what you miss is that coffee chat, those five minutes and everybody’s diaries were so full that you had to make an appointment to ask a few basic questions and that is where I think we did lose efficiency. 

I think that a balance of time in the office and at home is really important going forward.

What and who were the early influences that shaped your career?

I reflected upon this, certainly my parents. 

The work ethic and the fact that you don’t get success handed to you on a plate. 

You do have to go out and work at it, there is a balance between luck and hard work. 

You do need to be in the right place at the right time with the right opportunities presented to you, then you have to take them yourself. 

That strong work ethic came very much from both of my parents. 

If I think back to what I was like when I started my career at Peugeot, I was very red when it came to an insights scale and very task driven.

I have definitely mellowed since I have got older and more experienced and focused as much on individual and team performance as I do on getting the task done at the end of the day. 

That is something I have learned. 

Most sports people and even the people in F1 will say it is about focusing on the performance and the results will follow. 

You hear that increasingly these days n business as well. 

The other thing I reflect upon is some advice I was given some time ago, being very task driven I thought I was very good at taking a complex problem and seeing a way through it.

I have worked with people over the years that don’t resonate with each other and maybe there is a little bit of conflict there.

I have resonated on the fact a lot that working with people who are different from you offers a lot for your perspective and being receptive and being open and parking your predetermined path to one side to listen to what other people have to say and to come up with a better answer is really important. 

That isn’t just about an ED&I agenda, that is genuinely about all styles getting results. 

One person I would call out in my career is Sean McIlveen, who I worked with at Rolls Royce, and he worked for a long time at Ford. 

Trying to be an HR leader is very business-focused, being a business leader first with a focus on the people rather than being a pure HR leader I think is really important.

You only joined Aston Martin last April, is the role in any way different from what you expected?

I think the team at recruiting did a very good job of highlighting the challenges that the business faced. 

I don’t think anyone could have opened my eyes enough to the fact that this is 110 years old this year and we haven’t really invested enough recently around systems, and people in particular. 

We talk a lot about making sure we are professional around the way we do things and building that robustness into the business. 

We have had a lot of people join the business in the last four years, a lot of whom joined when we were in the pandemic and without having that robustness to the way we work it makes it a lot harder to get things done. 

Improving that efficiency and professionalising the way we do things. 

We relaunched our values this year and we are trying to recreate and build upon the values that have underpinned Aston Martin over the years and build upon them and bring them into the modern business.

What parts are you having to play in the HR agenda feeding into the bigger vision of the company and its investors?

Lawrence Stroll is the biggest investor and also the Executive Chairman so he spends quite a bit of time working with the business, he is a phenomenal backer for our company in terms of what we are trying to do. 

He is both personally and financially invested in the company and has built his career and wealth on brands in fashion such as Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. 

He brings a very different perspective from anyone else I have worked with in a manufacturing engineering space around building a brand, which is very different. 

It is about building your way to success, in so many engineering companies I’ve been at it has been cutting your way to success. 

Aston Martin is an experience, we want to recruit the best while retaining an environment where people can perform at their best. 

I am leading a multi-million-pound investment into the upgrading of our facilities to create a work environment. 

We build all of our cars in the UK and we do have regional offices for distribution and sales but absolutely that is in the UK – a multimillion pound investment going into our UK facilities – creating a work environment that is much more open, modern, collaborative and much more contusive to what you would expect to see in a more agile working environment. 

What is that X Factor you look for at Aston Martin when hiring?

I certainly think passion, this place builds passion in you but you have got to be passionate about what we do. 

Definitely breadth we are different to the volume car manufacturing companies. 

We are a lot smaller and therefore the jobs do have more breadth than a lot of the people we would see externally. 

A lot of people we see have worked in different environments and different countries. 

If you look in from an HR point of view within functions working across the function so you have a breadth of experience rather than just a narrow specialism. 

Because we are small you are going across things; one minute you are doing strategy, and the next minute you are taking the bins out! 

You have to be able to flex.

It needs a real can-do attitude, also resilience and the ability to have some fun and really connect with what we are trying to do as a business as well as what you are doing every day.

What, within the HR space, are you really passionate about?

Firstly, for the function, it is very much around HR has to be adding value to the business.

I am really passionate that the HR function is seen to be adding value, we are not just here to pay people and manage contracts. 

We are here to add value through working with talent, with teams, with leaders and creating the environment for them to then be successful. 

That, for me, is really important. 

I love recruiting and developing talent within the organisation, I love helping people along with their careers and seeing them thrive and flourish, seeing somebody’s career grow from strength to strength with a few nudges in the right direction.

The other thing I am really passionate about is creating a coaching environment, that is how you grow sustainable success by people being able to think for themselves and make the right decisions for themselves. 

Sustainable success comes from coaching and nurturing people throughout their careers. 

If we were to look specifically at tomorrow’s HR talent, what do you think the next generation of HR leaders needs to be doing today that enables them to be effective in a role like yours in the future?

I think firstly, CIPD and training stuff isn’t a long-term answer, it is clearly part of the journey, but it is about getting experiences and allowing people to try new things and reflect on what they’ve learnt from them. 

Giving people space to try and to fail. 

I think you have got to give your team a showcase where they can show what they can do for the wider organisation. 

Encourage them to keep looking on the outside, one thing I have tried to do in this role is to build that external network so that we are able to keep that vision of what is happening on the outside and bring that external vision of what is happening on the outside and bring some of that into the organisation where it ends. 

That networking is really key – attending conferences, scanning LinkedIn and building your network. 

Analytics, we talk a lot about it and there is a lot of development in technology and how you can build that insight for leaders. 

I don’t think the core of HR actually changes, it is about striking that balance between being an advocate for the company and for the employee and that insight that comes through analytics is also really important that you bring them from listening to people and understanding what is going on. 

That is the human part of human resources.